Coconut for brains

/ 08:35 AM April 15, 2012

Once upon a time the universe in these parts orbited around the coconut. Imagine the hacienderos in their early morning sandos over thin white cotton boxer shorts, listening to the radio, drinking coffee, their feet up the window sills of their old ancestral houses. This makes  perfect vantage point for looking up into the trees. Here and this way, they wait for the next harvest time.

And when it comes, their tenants climb up the trees cutting down the nuts still connected to each other in bunches. The nuts are cut in half on site, in a single stroke with large axes, the meat extracted from their shells with chisel-like knives and gathered into a pile until they form a small hill. Later they will be arranged neatly by the roadside to dry under the sun. And if there is too much rain, there are drying kilns which are large holes in the ground covered by thick bamboo slats over which the meat would be roasted until they are sufficiently dried. The husk and shells make perfect firewood for the drying. They do not call this the miracle tree for nothing. Everything about the coconut is useful. Leaves became roofs. Fronds made a perfect silhig or broom stiff enough to sweep even the wettest, the driest, the biggest animal excrement from unpaved pathways. And the most traditional lechon and torta were always roasted or baked with coconut shell charcoal. It had a particular sweetish smell we should never forget. It was once the smell of money.


And there was once upon time when the tenants genuinely loved their hacienderos. Back when the price of coconuts was   still sufficiently high to support a viable if unequal lifestyle for everyone. And then one might still hold a nostalgic recollection of how rural peasants, the saop, helped their hacienderos survive the war with the Japanese. Back then, saop were part of the feudal household. And if this relationship was ultimately paternalistic in the worst sense, the fact was  it was also mutually benificial. It merely continued the pre-colonial social system. The hacienderos were still called datu as they once were called before the time of the Spanish colonizers.

Datus were once barrangay heads and tribal leaders. Now they mean simply rich. Everyone who is not datu is merely poor. Saop has become a disparaging term referring simply to the landless or those who don’t own the land on which they work. They were not always poor, ignorant, unschooled, and underfed. But now they are. And the story of their drift from a sort of paradise into this dismal hell is an essential story of  Bisayan culture itself if only it were not too tragic to contemplate. What Marcos and Cojuanco did with the coconut industry was criminal. What the rich and powerful continue to do with it deserves nothing short of revolution in another more enlightened country. But not here.


Indeed, it is intriguing to see how old coconut planting families victimized by Marcos’ coconut levy at the worst time of their lives should now tolerate what their leaders continue to do with their money. These are monies which translate best into pounds of flesh.

Imagine a time when the international price of coconut oil suddenly dipped low enough to drive everyone to hard times. And then comes Marcos and Cojuanco and someone named Maria Clara Lobregat telling the farmers why it was best that they should now slap a levy on every kilo of coconut they produced. Funds accrued would be used to resurrect the industry back from the dead or so they said and not in as many words. And it is important to note the meetings they called were not attended by saop. Hacienderos were mostly in attendance. But this is not to say that they did not suffer because of Marcos’ levy. It is merely to say that they must have suffered considerably less than their saop. Or how could they contemplate this issue and not see it as a betrayal of the most personal sort?

But it is a fact of life: In the wake of such drastic drift to poverty, the hacienderos simply moved to the cities and sent their children to schools to become professionals, clerks, accountants, lawyers, even judges. Truly, they survived the crash of local agriculture through smarts and hard work. Not so, their saop. The hacienda was their only home even if it was not a home they actually owned. Here they suffered Marcos’ and Conjuangco’s dream for them in the most real and abject sense. At times they came close to starving. In time they became what they are now. And of course what else could their hacienderos do for them but watch. And yes, express the deepest, most sincere sympathy?

But time, as they say, heals all wounds. And if not that, then it lays them by the side to be forgotten. The original hacienderos and their original saop would in time all pass away, and their suffering eventually translate into soul-less money in their billions. Who can make the connection between this money and millions of impoverished rural children? So now, another government will spin us another dream of saving the coconut industry.

What? By selling coconut juice to an international market? Turning coconut oil into automobile fuel? For one more act of dream-spinning, many souls will turn in their graves. They pray for the guilty to pay. Now. Or rot forever in hell!

Datus were once barrangay heads and tribal leaders. Now they mean simply rich

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